Too Young To Vote, But Not To Be Executed

The latest stay of execution for Napoleon Beazley, convicted of a murder he committed at the age of 17, shines a bright light on America's outrageous treatment of juveniles convicted of capital crimes.

It's an ugly picture, but hardly new. In the 1930's and '40s, Black teens were routinely sentenced to death by all-white, small-town Southern juries for alleged crimes against white women. Most were overturned, but one was not. In 1944, George Stinney, 14, had the macabre distinction of being the youngest person known to be legally executed in the United States.

Today, 23 states impose an age minimum of 18 for the death penalty, but 15 states have no age minimum. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 18 men have been executed since 1976 for crimes they committed when younger than 18. There are 84 juveniles currently on America's death rows.

Not surprisingly, Texas leads the pack. Beazley was among 31 Texas prisoners who were 17 -- younger people cannot be sentenced to death -- when they committed their crimes. Some in other states were as young as 16 when convicted and sentenced to death.

Nearly half are Black males, and most of those were convicted of killing whites. Beazley, typically, was convicted by an all-white jury, and his victim was white.

Most experts agree that children don't have the same maturity, judgment, or emotional development as adults. Amnesty International found that of 23 child offenders sentenced to death, at least 22 had suffered severe physical or sexual abuse. Of the 23, 10 were alcohol - or drug-impaired; 14 suffered from acute mental illness or brain damage. Nearly all were of below-average intelligence.

Despite Hollywood sensationalism and media-driven myths about rampaging youth, most experts insist that children are not natural-born killers. With proper treatment, counseling, skills training, and education, most can become productive adults.

Yet, if Beazley had been executed, he would have been the 19th prisoner killed since 1976 for crimes committed before turning 18. In this ominous context, the Beazley case may be no more than a blip on the execution scorecard, and not the great sea change in legal and public opinion that death penalty opponents hoped would follow mass attention to his case.

In fact, prosecutors and courts in states that execute juveniles have repeatedly rejected challenges that this violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Neither President Bush, Attorney-General John Ashcroft, nor Texas Governor Rick Perry voiced any public doubt about the injustice of executing Beazley -- yet another sign that federal and state officials still see nothing wrong in condemning juveniles to death, and will say and do nothing to reverse the policy.

The one slender ray of hope was the decision by Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, and John Paul Stevens to shake loose from their hard-line, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil stance on state executions, and vote to stay Beazley's execution.

This sent a strong message that at least some jurists are squeamish about killing juvenile offenders -- which almost certainly had some affect in getting the Texas appeals court -- usually even more reluctant than the high court to reverse death penalty convictions -- to grant Beazley an indefinite stay.

But this doesn't change the disgraceful fact that the United States stands virtually alone in the world in killing juvenile offenders. Only the Congo and Iran, among the world's most abominable human rights violators, have executed juveniles in the past three years, and both have now repudiated the practice.

Even China, which executes more persons than nearly all other countries combined -- save the United States -- has banned juvenile executions.

The American Bar Association, the United Nations, medical ssociations, human rights groups, and a national commission studying the death penalty, that included former FBI director William Sessions have all called for the U.S. to ban executing adults who committed crimes as juveniles.

A Texas court, three Supreme Court justices, and world condemnation saved Beazley. But if past practice and current public sentiment -- still strongly pro-capital punishment -- are any indication, this may not be enough to save others like Beazley from death.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and president of the National Alliance for Positive Action (www.natalliance.org).

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